Eric Parsons bikes through the Nulato Hills. Photo by Luc Mehl.
The Nulato Hills are one of Alaska’s hidden gems, with few visitors besides bears, moose, and the locals hunting them. I first heard about the Nulato Hills at a wedding. In an effort to avoid the dance floor, Andy Angstman pulled me aside to describe an isolated range of mountains along the Yukon River. Andy’s portrayal of alpine ridges and clear rivers was compelling.
There is a trick to life in Alaska, a method of managing expectations. If you anticipate conditions to be hard, it comes as a pleasant surprise if they turn out to be easy. If you anticipate that conditions will be easy, it can be exhausting, physically and mentally, to grit through the hard parts. Based on Andy’s recommendation, I made two trips to the Nulato Hills, each with different expectations.
It Looks Bikeable from Outer Space (September, 2017)
When I finally located the Nulato Hills on a map, the feature that caught my eye was a nearly continuous ridge extending between Nulato on the Yukon River and Unalakleet on the coast, a distance of 130 miles. The ridge looked bald, so smooth that I suspected it could be biked.
At 6’2” and an accomplished wilderness athlete, Eric Parsons’ preferred mode of travel is by bike. In the mid 2000s, Eric started sewing bike cargo bags in his Anchorage basement. Since then his company, Revelate Designs, has grown to dominate the market. I emailed Eric the route, and he enthusiastically signed on.
We expected conditions to be hard, and they were. We swam our fat-tire bikes across the Nulato River and followed bear tracks into the aftermath of a 2015 forest fire. The fire had left an eerie landscape of fallen black spruce mixed with sections of thick stands of new aspen. After pushing and carrying our bikes eight miles, we reached the ridge, exhausted.
We spent the next days in a thick fog. Because we expected the worst, the sections that were bikeable felt like a huge treat. Eric giggled like a child as his bike carved lines through the soft tundra.
Despite putting in long days, we traveled at half the expected pace, which meant we would run out of food halfway through the trip. It was disappointing to turn around, but we were rewarded with a break in the weather—views of autumn’s birch and spruce forests below the red tundra ridge. Andy Angstman was right, these hills were something special.
“The Sound of Music” with Muskox (June, 2018)
I convinced my girlfriend, Sarah Histand, to join for a second trip to the Nulato Hills. I explained that the ridges featured muskox trails, some of the best wilderness travel possible. Instead of bikes, we would bring packrafts, eight-pound boats that would allow us to float the second half of the route. It would be a relaxing vacation—think The Sound of Music, but with muskox. Sarah was sold.
We received a warm welcome in Nulato. Martha Turner brought us to the Tribal Council, where the locals shared stories and advice about the hills. We were offered mosquito repellent, bear spray, and guns. We took the bear spray but left the guns.
We waded the river and hiked through the burn. The mosquitos were thick. We only had one head-net, so I stretched a pair of Sarah’s long underwear over my head as a makeshift net. This was not The Sound of Music.
On the ridge, we hid from a howling wind to watch muskox grazing with their yearlings. We shouldered our packs and headed toward the heart of the hills, where the ridges grew steep and rocky. Since we had expected easy travel, these difficult conditions were hard on morale. The weather worsened to match the difficult terrain.
On day six, we hiked late into the evening to reach the North River. The river was just a stream, boat wide and ankle deep, but it was a huge relief. Soon we would be floating, gaining easy miles and resting our sore legs.
Packrafts allow backcountry adventurers to traverse many more miles than on foot. Here, the author’s girlfriend, Sarah Histand, floats down the North River on the couple’s Nulato Hills trip. Photo by Luc Mehl.
The North River exceeded expectations. The clear water sliced through short canyon walls packed with nesting birds. We watched a grizzly swim across the river, and goslings tumble down the bank. We spotted the remains of a trapping cabin, the first sign of people since an abandoned ATV transfer case 100 miles behind us. A great gray owl pivoted its head 180 degrees, tracking us as we silently floated by.
In many aspects of Alaskan living, reward is proportional to challenge. Timm Nelson met us at the Unalakleet dock and brought us to his in-laws’ house for an anniversary and solstice celebration. The solstice feast— fresh bread, caribou sausage, and the season’s first king salmon—felt like an appropriate reward for the challenging trek from Nulato.
The Nulato Hills will never draw the attention that Alaska’s prouder mountains receive. Their voice is too subtle, rivers too tranquil. The hills quietly protect their prize with difficult access, and the reward is well worth the challenge, even if there isn’t a feast waiting at the finish.